Neurobiology and Relationships

My office art used to include neatly framed certificates, pictures to relax, children’s art, and words to inspire.  These days, I have added a variety of pictures and charts of the brain.  The art  and science of psychotherapy is in a period of exciting information from the field of neurobiology.  Technology has allowed scientists to see inside the workings of our brains to understand how our thoughts and emotions actually look in the form of neurons and chemicals that affect our bodies and minds and our relationships.

Understanding patterns of response that have been laid down since childhood and even encoded from generational aspects in our DNA is a major step in coming to grips with defenses that can interfere with relationships.   Memories encoded with emotion can remaining largely unconscious and can surface in our relationships when something in the present reminds us of something painful from the past.  It may not be the same, but our defenses prompt us to react just in case it is the same. This all happens in the split second between the alarm going off in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex having time to evaluate the situation.  The work of therapy becomes connecting the dots between automatic defensive reactions and triggers and buying that second that is the difference between reaction and response.  Science tells us that our brain’s plasticity allows new patterns to be made from old pieces of our life experiences.  This insight is the work of therapy.

Improving relationships is not only a matter of intention.  It is awareness and understanding of ourselves, openness and empathy to the inner workings of another human being, and willingness to practice new ways of communicating based on these understandings.